Category Archives: politics


It’s easy for me to devour news analysis and critical writing online, respond to it with a strong emotional flare (“Yes!” “How awful!”), then forget about it. Trying to check that consumerist impulse by taking time here to share notes on things I’ve read online that affected or struck me, whether or not I agreed with the author’s arguments.

Philip Blond reviews John Milbank and Adrian Pabst’s The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future. Blond is a conservative Catholic; his review favorably examines Milbank and Pabst’s assertion that liberalism is responsible for both dissolving social ties and duties on an individual level and creating a market authoritarianism on the social level. The authors argue that social liberalism, asserting that the most important freedoms are negative (“freedom from“), and economic liberalism, giving every realm of social life over to the market, are inextricably linked. But how to imagine a post-liberal politics that not just, say, reactionary populism or proto-fascism? These particular conservative authors are stumped. Too bad the review doesn’t meaningfully engage liberalism’s critics on the left.

Charisse Burden-Stelly, “Why Claudia Jones Will Always Be More Relevant than Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Burden-Stelly critiques what she sees in Coates’s writing on whiteness as a metaphysics– an unbreakable magic spell, intrinsic to America– rather than as one instrument of an oppressive social and economic order. “[A]ntiblackness is inextricable from the suppression of labor, the deportation of ‘alien’ progressives, the incarceration of anti-capitalists, the indictment of communists and ‘fellow travellers,’ the censure of demands for fundamental redistribution, and the overall repression of the left.” If racism is primarily an innate American wound instantiated in individual racist behaviors, there is no room for a structural analysis of inequality or the development of counterpower. Burden-Stelly paraphrases Claudia Jones, a 50s intellectual, that “white supremacy was not a matter of attitude or morals, but rather of property rights, access to resources, and the hierarchical organization of American society.”

Robert Cottrell reviews Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History, a study of Russian society under Putin seen through the lives of seven contemporary Russians. Gessen claims that Russia’s society has retained an orientation toward totalitarianism, which persists even in the absence of a totalitarian leader; Putin’s government is instead closer to a “Mafia state.” And in modern Russia the persecution of gays serves a similar purpose to Russia’s persecution of Jews: destroying an “enemy within” to strengthen state control of the social order.

Ross Douthat, “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” Douthat looks at the white evangelicals who elected Trump even though he was a Godless bully and sexual predator. Won’t Trump drive away young evangelicals who care deeply about character and orthodoxy, and fissure white conservative political power? Douthat has his doubts. Many seem to be sticking with white Christian tribalism, no matter how partisan and anti-intellectual its results. And perhaps, in fact, it’s in this ghastly tribalism that evangelicalism had its strength all along.

Henry Louis Gates, “Let Them Talk: Why Civil Liberties Pose No Threat to Civil Rights.” From (of all places) The New Republic, originally published in the late ’90s. This is the most thorough and detailed argument against the idea of criminalizing/censoring “hate speech” I’ve ever read by an intellectual conversant in critical race theory.

Kenan Malik, “In Search of the Common Good.” Malik examines the notion of the “common good” and the role it plays in underpinning the possibility of solidarity. He notes that the common good has traditionally been defined by who it otherizes and excludes; and he also notes how liberalism has both weakened and widened this concept. “[L]iberal individualism has helped both undermine the idea of community, and hence of the common good, and expand our conception of the moral community which defines the common good.” In the US and England, both the left and right are currently deeply critical of the concept of the common good. We live in a very socially fragmented society, which makes solidarity across lines of ethnicity, culture, and faith (and meaningful engagement with one’s opponents) increasingly difficult. Where do we go from here?

Steven Mithen reviews James C. Scott’s Against the Grain. Humans’ transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was messy, often disastrous: it increased the spread of disease among animals and humans; it wore down laborers’ bodies; and it promoted centralized hierarchy (made possible by taxation of grain), slavery, and war. By contrast, many centers of hunter-gatherer activity (Scott discusses Hongzhou Bay and Mesopotamia) had abundant resources, sometimes enough to permit a sedentary lifestyle. So why switch? Mithen’s review doesn’t mention Marvin Harris’s thesis in Cannibals and Kings, that most hunter-gatherer societies intensified their resource extraction until non-farmable resources were exhausted; they were thus forced to adopt agriculture. Mithen and Scott focus instead mostly on massive sites of worship as a justification for a transition to cereal-based agriculture. One aside from the article I loved: the term “Dark Age” is an elite invention. Before around 400 years ago— when there were still non-city-state areas left for outcasts and rebels to flee to— democracy, culture, and overall human health flourished precisely when city-states collapsed.

Charles Mudede, “Vancouver Study Shows Why Seattle’s HALA Is Doomed to Fail.” HALA– the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda– is a Band-Aid on a huge problem: that Seattle’s bonkers housing boom is fueled, not by supply and demand, but by debt-driven finance. New condos are a speculative commodity making developers tons of money, and mandating that 10% of them be “affordable” will do nothing to slow an upcycling of all of Seattle’s new housing stock. The only realistic way to dampen this would be a high tax on speculation, something Seattle doesn’t have the power to enact.

Keeange-Yamahtta Taylor, “No More Charlottesvilles.” As the racist right enjoys unprecedented sympathy and moral support from federal government, anti-racist resistance needs to turn up, without the belief that the state will play any role in dampening reactionary violence.

Michael Wear, “Pro-Life Voters and Pro-Choice Politicians.” Wear’s political background is obviously not mine, but he makes a point about voting that has stuck with me. It’s tempting, and common, to think of voting as primarily a personal expression, a statement about our identity (as in “voting one’s conscience”). But if we really believe that our engagement with politics can be a form of loving one’s neighbor, our voting should reflect not primarily what we believe about ourselves, but about how we want peace, well-being, and empowerment to come to our communities.


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Speaking of Which

oscar-wildeA thought that ties into my post here Monday. From Oscar Wilde’s essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism”:

“The message of Christ to man was simply ‘Be thyself.’ That is the secret of Christ.

“When Jesus talks about the poor he simply means personalities, just as when he talks about the rich he simply means people who have not developed their personalities. Jesus moved in a community that allowed the accumulation of private property just as ours does, and the gospel that he preached was not that in such a community is is an advantage for a man to live on scanty, unwholesome food, to wear ragged, unwholesome clothes, to sleep in horrid, unwholesome dwellings, and a disadvantage for a man to live under healthy, pleasant and decent conditions. Such a view would have been wrong there and then, and would of course be still more wrong now and in England; for as man moves northwards the material necessities of life become of more vital importance, and our society is infinitely more complex, and displays far greater extremes of luxury and pauperism than any of the antique world.

“What Jesus meant was this. He said to man, ‘You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be your self. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your perfection is inside of you. If only you could realize that, you would not want to be rich.

“‘Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things, that may not be taken from you. And so, try so to shape your life that external things will not harm you.'”

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My Queerness, My Male Privilege, and My Catholicism

Reflecting on a responsibility to myself I’ve failed to fully keep: living my full self candidly in all my communities.

Part of my reverence for Catholicism, my embrace of it as a worldview, has to do with the deep importance of the body in Catholic faith life. The standing and kneeling. The dousing with holy water and the heavy earthy reek of real frankincense and the real flowers wilting and the real bloody sweetness of the wine. The weak and emaciated body on the cross instructing us in God’s willing embrace and redemption of all that’s bodily: our physical infirmity, our historical contingency, our subjection to arrogant power, our radical weakness, our possibility of freely-chosen solidarity and our passage into death: death the darkest shadow of all those cast by this beautiful and bleeding creation, the shadow twinning all its light, and God passing through it. I revere communion as a foretaste of our unity, body and soul, with God. We know God in our bodies: our bodies are not a shell or a sinker dragging our featherweight spirits into temptation: they’re braided up with our souls.

This is important because, in my experience of sexuality as well as of spiritual ecstasy, I feel brought close to the edge of my finitude. Karl Rahner said once that humans are incomplete beings oriented toward completeness. In spirituality as in sexuality, I feel a deep intimation of a unity that I as an incomplete being won’t definitively achieve in life but I can sense, unbearably close, overpowering and out of reach.

I feel all this wisdom in Catholicism, so deeply that it breaks my heart how deeply dehumanizing church teachings are on queer sexuality (especially queer sexuality, I should say) and women’s reproductive freedom.

Friends who I love– friends who are radically open to God, friends doing the work on Earth I’d call kingdom-building, friends in touch with a profound awe at the mystery of our existence– can’t find a home in my faith community. Who could blame them, when Church teaching calls queer sexuality “intrinsically disordered” and Francis compares the spectrum theory of gender to nuclear weapons for how both harm “the order of creation“? My parish is blessed to be home to an open, affirming, and progressive community; our families look many different ways; our parishioners and pastors were deeply involved with the “Catholics for Marriage Equality” campaign; but the weight of the Church’s own teachings hangs over all of us and our work.

And I, for my part, have made my home in my parish while hedging on a deep part of myself: I’m a queer person in a loving partnership with a woman. I’m queer in my range of attractions, queer in my romance, queer in my relationship’s experience of and agreements around intimacy– a queer person who passes, often willingly, as straight in much of my faith community (plenty of other spaces too). I’ve passed by choice and habit and a deeply internalized fear of exposure: an invisible fear, a matter of adjusting my habits and managing others’ expectations, rather than fleeing or explicitly denying anything.

The consolations of this act of passing– fitting in and tending to others’ expectations– are bogus. Can I pretend my heart is hidden from God? (Thinking of Luke 12:3.) This choosing to pass is also a failure of responsibility to friends who can’t choose to pass: I let them stay other in the eyes of my faith community, even of prospective allies in my faith community. This consolation also can’t compare to the joy I feel when I truly acknowledge and welcome my whole extravagantly sissy, tender, outrageous self. There’s a simplicity in this acknowledgement that I’m taking a deep breath and embracing. I believe doing this will bring me more harmony with the embodied qualities of Catholic faith I love, and more courage in speaking up against the aspects of the Catholic understanding of the body that I resist.

Speaking of which, I’m feeling more and more acutely the cost of being a man in an institution as foundationally sexist as the church. The Catholic church is the church of Mary, Ruth, Miriam, Julian of Norwich, St. Theresa, Flannery O’Connor, Sr. Mary Antona Ebo, Teresa Forcades i Vila OSB, Dorothy Day, Mairead Maguire, Milet Mendoza, Eleanor Josaitis, Sr. Helen Prejean: women on fire with the Spirit. But the Church’s name and might has also been, again and again, a means of controlling women throughout history, relegating them to a smaller humanity than men. The Church’s denial of the priesthood to women is offensive. It’s one of the distortions– like Augustine’s justification of forced conversions from, of all things, Christ’s parable of the great banquet– that come from rationalizing the arrangements of power in the societies where the Church had been invited to share that power.

The practice of church doctrines on sexual responsibility are, I believe, one aspect of this diminishment and devaluation of the female. Instantiated in everything from the Church’s extensive charitable work to its Sunday school, this doctrine falls punitively (and almost exclusively) on women, on the female body as a site of male power and control. For repeating the sin of Eve, a woman’s atonement will be acceptance of a child she may have no means to care for and no support in raising. In my stinging conscience, I’m aware of how my comfort as a man in a male-dominated institution has sometimes dulled my resolve to speak out about sexuality, female empowerment, and abortion to my Catholic spiritual siblings, and my resolve to show visible solidarity with others who do so.

I love Catholicism for the age and weathered grandeur and extravagant patchiness of its cultural and ecclesial life. It reflects many societies, many ways of knowing. The Church’s very human overelaboration– of ritual, artifice, decoration– doesn’t match the grandeur of God. But this overelaboration is, to me, a more beautiful sort of failed attempt than that of the hard-pew, bare-cross Presbyterianism I was raised in. I feel I belong in the Church. I write candidly about sexuality and institutional sexism here not out of a fantasy of reshaping the church to suit my experience, but because it feels poisonous to belie my conscience by omission. “He who acts against his conscience always does moral evil.” My resolution is to risk discomfort more in search of truer harmony and joy, and to give more labor and solidarity to those doing kingdom work in the church itself.

Thanks to A and G who urged me to find the courage to speak all this. Thanks to J for shining a light for me on women leaders, lay and religious, in the church.



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Songs I Like #9: Dead Kennedys, “Moon Over Marin”

Our normal is another’s crisis: our tank of gas puts Tuvalu under water; our cheap tropical fruit grows in a rain of Guatemalan bullets. We— the we of the educated and decently-secure Global North– don’t experience this directly, not without a certain counter-socialized moral effort. But then, there will always be people who don’t notice that the world has ended. Marin: unthinkably expensive fixer-uppers, chilly moss-blanketed redwoods, virtuous grocery stores, sheer red rock, hideous traffic (since 50 years ago upscale neighbors turned down the chance to have the BART come) dotted with nonpolluting cars. It takes seeing another’s comfort sometimes for me to remember that my, like anyone’s, comfort is breathtakingly fragile, and is also a force that gives me meaning, a frame for life, a sense of what’s normal. “Moon over Marin” is a serious, stark tune, an outlier amid the laughing hysteria and vivid contempt of the Dead Kennedys’ Plastic Surgery Disasters. A solemn and comfortable last survivor– park ranger of the ruined shore? a last resident whom this life suits just fine?– walks their section of the oil-choked, poison-leaching beach in uniform and gasmask, then returns home for a sacramental cleanse in a “scalding wooden tub.” Above it, the clean bright unspoiled Moon is as permanent as our life, its tidiness and predictability and comfort, is transitory. We have more power than we realize.




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First Thoughts for My Beloved Community


Concentrate on this feeling. The hopelessness, the feeling of entrapment, the thought of flight, the heart-tugging fear you feel looking at your children asleep and imagining the world they’ll grow up in. This is a feeling– and I’m addressing my urban white lefty community– that’s attended every election (every police shooting, every teargas canister, every widening of surveillance, every gotcha drone strike) for our Muslim neighbors, our black neighbors, our trans neighbors, our immigrant neighbors. Now we urban white lefties can feel it too. That fear.

Concentrate on it– really invite it, so you can recall it in your body when your own moment for showing up in solidarity comes. Or for more than a moment, when you’re making the countless small decisions that orient a life as a whole. We’re called to be bread for each other, to transform ourselves, to lift up and love the humanity of those whom this new president will almost certainly surveil, incarcerate, disenfranchise, assault, degrade, bomb, and torture.


If this is your thing, pray, listen to meditative music, read something sacred (for me today it’s Psalm 73), remember that we’re held in a mystery that we can never master, carried in a movement and a love that’s bigger than us. That feeling of awe isn’t the same as passivity.


Just as politicized organizers of color have been saying for decades, our white lefty cynicism and hopeless contempt won’t protect us, our inaction won’t protect us.

And just as politicized organizers of color have been saying for decades, racism is a potent force in American politics. Concentrate on that feeling, the way that knowledge feels. Poor and working-class whites have felt the sting of exclusion from decades of urban neoliberal policymaking. Its fruits have been poverty, deindustrialization, wage stagnation, drug abuse, suicide. Now, given years of assiduous right-wing organizing; and given a candidate who ran as an outsider, who embraces a cult of action and victory, who’s too tough to brook civility, compromise, or dissent, who calls back a nationalist rhetoric of greatness to be reclaimed; these voters have embraced him.

And just as politicized organizers of color have been saying for decades, the “normal” of privileged folks is another’s crisis. It is easy to intellectually sympathize with those crushed by globalized capital (or for that matter by white supremacy, patriarchy, and empire) without really understanding in our bodies what it’s like to live in fear, uncertainty, powerlessness, and alienation. Trump harnessed those emotions among whites and is willing to weaponize them. Now urban white lefty folks, many of whom are insulated from the shocks of neoliberalism, suddenly feel the ground moving under us, too.

But I’m remembering too something Stokeley Carmichael said: “You can’t organize people if you don’t like them.” Urban white lefties, this is our call to do organizing with rural whites. They are not an implacable, homogenous enemy, but are, just as much as any community, a source of potentially liberatory energy: as a hotbed for labor organizing, as a community of potentially welcoming and justice-oriented Christians, as people who don’t want to see their homeland polluted to death.

And please remember, as I’m trying to remember, that most poor white people voted for nobody: disenfranchisement of those on the economic bottom has been as important to Republican power as gerrymandering and Citizens United. Categorical enlightened-white loathing of a fictitious single category of poor bigoted-white is poison.


It seems likely that, with majorities in both houses of Congress, the new president will have the means to push the Supreme Court back to its essentially reactionary/pro-Big Guy role of the pre-Marshall Court era; further restrict access to abortion; further militarize the police; surveil and detain Muslims and possibly radical Black organizers as well; significantly weaken programs like Medicaid and TANF; roll back all protections of the Voting Rights Act; enable industry capture of the EPA; embolden (with his violent rhetoric) racist cops, transphobic legislatures, and anti-immigrant bullies.

And that’s just domestically.

None of this requires an explicit authoritarian power grab– arresting opposition senators, shutting down media outlets, cultivating enemy lists– but who knows? In four years, will America look more like England or Poland does now? Or more like Argentina or the Philippines did in the 1980s?

Or, with Trump’s bluster matched by indiscipline and deep personal ugliness, he may simply get hammered by a change of political tide (in organized opposition and mainstream institutional resistance) in two years. But if that happens, it won’t be because we checked out, gave up in disgust, or stuck to our politically-liberal cities.

It’s time to organize.


The next days, weeks, months will show how the Democrats react. There’s an actual possibility that they may have to shift toward being a multi-racial populist coalition party, with a fifty-state strategy, to survive. But they may take exactly the wrong lesson, blaming (say) Black Lives Matter and Sanders for daring to criticize the genteel East Coast neoliberal-moderate consensus that’s dominated the party for 20+ years; they may attempt to drag the party back toward some imagined “center.”

I don’t want to discount the simple power of reactionary sexist hatred in Clinton’s defeat. It’s also important to remember that— from her hawkishness to her association with her husband’s crime bill to her friendliness with Wall Street— many people found reasons to simply distrust her as a leader.


I’m no great fan of the liberal state. But the right-wing push toward hard partisanship, the exacerbation of inequality, and intentional dysfunction has served to drain any sense of comity, shared commitment, or common aspiration out of civic life.

I want to build the power of the people whom this president will seek to crush. At the same time, as much as any other anti-authoritarian, I want a country whose processes and politics encourage us to build relationships with one another; not just fight. I hope the rhetoric of those in resistance to Trump is about healing and solidarity as well as power.


Here are some things I’ve read and heard since Tuesday night that have grounded me and given me perspective.

Glenn Greenwald, “Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit

Damon Young, “This is What White Supremacy Looks Like

Ruby Sales interviewed by Krista Tippett, “Where Does It Hurt?: the Spiritual Crisis of White America

Eric Posner, “Are There Limits to Trump’s Power?

Charles Mudede, “I Thought America Would Never Become a Zimbabwe. I Was Wrong.

Would love to know what’s done so for you.


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When People Ask Me Why I Quit Facebook

Something extractive about it, obligatory. You know what I mean? I’m good at overdoing things, and the way Facebook called me to overdo my friendedness made me tired.

Something diffuse, thinning about it. We live in an era in the wired-in Global North where friendship is changing from a noun to a verb: from the pleasure, aspiration, and moral ardor of a few abiding commitments to a diffuse cloud of being friended, a well-wishing whose many-fibered vapor buoys our sense of self. This formulation first got planted in my head by William Deresiewicz’s piece on this, one I still go back to.

Something self-commodifying about it. (I have nothing against commodities; I love commodities. I just got under my own skin when I realized how Facebook had trained me to position myself as a spectacle, a product.)

Something disquieting about how I saw politics manifest on it in my community. An environment where signaling membership and belonging is low-commitment and low-risk, but at the same time depends on an essentially middle-class code-fluency. Folks of our class and culture have been persuaded that virtuous self-expression is itself political. That that self-expression—rather than an ongoing personal relationship with, and practical commitment to, an oppressed community—amounts to categorical solidarity. That politics is about mastering a language. (Don’t want to minimize its potential for contacts among diffuse groups, rapid mobilization, usefully-jarring perspectives: there’s no one right way to do political work. Not intending to dismiss those for whom it’s an essential political tool. It’s just not for me anymore.)


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On Liberation, Loneliness, Spirituality, and the Cops

Hi friends, the lefty/dissenting Catholic webspace, Young Adult Catholics, has published an essay called “Honored Guests” which I wrote last summer. Hope you enjoy.


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